Are you considering a career in HR?

HR or personnel is a profession that has been around for more than 100 years, with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) boasting more than 135,000 members, including more than 50,000 who are chartered.

Originally the function was predominantly focused on the welfare of women and girls impacted by the dreadful conditions in industry. After the Second World War, the personnel function began to expand its services in leading negotiations with unions over pay and conditions, recruitment, absence management and dismissals.

Unlike today where HR staff advise and support managers, these responsibilities were often handled solely by the personnel manager, who was a powerful figure - think Joan in Mad Men.

During the 1960s and 1970s, increasing employment legislation and the introduction of industrial tribunals, together with the growth and power of trade unions, brought a sharper focus on understanding and interpreting the law.

Since then, the profession has seen more change with the term human resources (HR) being adopted widely to reflect the broadening service and the feverish embracement of the Ulrich model – which has resulted in the growth of business partners, centres of excellence and outsourced basic administrative HR functions.  

In the past few years, the job title 'chief people officer' has become more common in companies keen to reflect their more modern approach to employee engagement.

These days, an HR professional can have a very varied portfolio. You can choose to be a generalist or specialise in areas including reward (compensation and benefits), recruitment, learning and development or employee relations (managing complex cases).

What skills do I need?

You need to have a strong commercial focus, understand business and the law, as well as being comfortable with numbers and able to embrace new technologies.

Eve Russell, assistant director for workforce at Gloucestershire NHS Trust, says: "I never thought of myself as a 'numbers person' and never expected numeracy to feature highly in my role… however, that was total naivety on my part."

An HR professional needs to exercise good judgement, be politically savvy, and have a deep understanding of what influences behaviour and motivation.

In any organisation, the HR director will often be the strongest manager and therefore able to coach, inspire and challenge the senior team.

Having the right person in the post, who can anticipate and drive the people strategies needed, can have a very positive impact on the business. Organisations that are seen as employers of choice attract not just the best candidates but consumers increasingly choose companies that clearly look after and care about their staff over those that don't.

I met Peter Cheese, the chief executive of the CIPD, and asked him why someone should consider a career in HR. His response was that business is all about people and money and so HR has a big contribution to make. Cheese has a background in management consultancy and says consultancy skills are key to identify what businesses need from HR.

Going it alone

There is a growing trend for HR professionals at the top of their game to set up their own businesses and provide independent HR or employment services or move into chief operating officer, or chief executive officer roles.

Rebecca McKenzie did just that after an international career as an HR director. She left her HR director job in Swindon and is now chief executive for Mitchell Shire Council in Victoria, Australia. McKenzie says: "I was recruited into my current role because they needed someone to rebuild culture and stakeholder relationships. HR was the perfect grounding."

HR is a profession that attracts graduates but is also a career that can be accessed without a degree and employees can study to become CIPD qualified while working. Individuals with backgrounds in finance, law, operations, marketing and communications, as well as general management, also make great HR professionals.

Ethics and HR

There is an increasing focus on ethics, and the CIPD quite rightly has a strict code of professional conduct that all its members are bound by that reflects the huge influence and power an HR professional can have. Cheese says any employer choosing to hire someone that is not qualified and has no external accountability to a professional institute is just plain crazy.
A career in HR is not for the faint-hearted. To do well, you must continually add value by introducing new ways of thinking to drive competitive advantage whilst constantly being on red alert for potential problems, heading them off quickly. No two days are the same but it is a career that is hugely satisfying as well as being all consuming. I wouldn't change it for the world.

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